Monday, April 23, 2007
TOUR OF WALLA WALLA
As I found out this past weekend, there's a point in a criterium bike race when you know you've fallen off the pack. It's when the volunteers start letting people cross the street during the ever-widening gulf of both time and space that's opened up between you and everyone else. You know you've really fallen off when the people crossing don't even have to run. They glance up, see that they've got plenty of time and just kinda saunter, enjoying a leisurely walk.
Such was my fate Sunday morning in the Southeast Washington town of Walla Walla. But it was the only bummer in what was a truly great experience: my first real bike racing event, wherein I had to use my license and pin my numbers on my back and bike in specified ways and otherwise follow the rules and whims of bike racing official types.
It was an omnium, meaning it was three races: a time trial and road race on Saturday, followed by the (dreaded) crit on Sunday. I've done plenty of triathlons before but never a straight time trial. This was 7 (or 7.5? I'm not really sure) miles, all-out, as fast as you can, each rider leaving at 30-second intervals. No time for real thought, no worries about strategy. Just go! My only thought, I guess, was that I didn't want to be passed by wave upon wave of riders, all of whom started after me.
I was lucky because about a half-mile into it, I'd gained quite a bit on the guy who started before me and passed him not long after. It was a huge confidence boost. (Says a lot about me doesn't it, that my self-image improves at the shortcomings of others.) It was slightly uphill on the way out and at the turnaround point, the guy who started a minute ahead of me looked to be within reach. Being slightly downhill, the way back was much faster (up to 34 mph for me) but I couldn't quite make up the distance. He finished just a few seconds ahead of me, but I was pleased with my ride: 18: 49, 1:31 behind the winner; good for 12th out of 45 Category 5 riders.
Three-and-a-half hours later was the road race, definitely one of the most intense (and fun) sporting experiences I've ever had. The focus and concentration required--rows and rows of riders three abreast, riding within inches of each other front to back--was unlike anything I've known. An Ironman Triathlon, a 50K, etc., you just kind of get in a mode and try to hang on. Your mind can wander, it can spiral into how much you hate/love the activity, how you're never going to do anything like this again, etc. Not so on this road race. I could barely look down at my bike computer for fear of missing something and being dropped. The one time I tried drinking from my bottle, there was mass slowing of the pack and in grabbing my brakes I dropped the bottle. (Luckily, it shot off to the side of the road so nobody ran over it. But I had nothing to drink for most of the race.) My race was only 38 miles, about 2 hours. I can't imagine keeping up this level of focus for 95 miles the way the Pros, Cat 1 and 2 riders had to.
In my race, most of the 45 or so riders rode en masse for about the first 25 miles. Then the pace picked way up, a longish hill broke up the pack and with about 10 miles to go, a group of eight got ahead of the amorphous blob of riders that I was in. We got the paceline going a few times, which was cool--luckily I had some experience doing this with the Fanatik team--but never could reel in the lead pack.
The road race ended with a 3K climb, which feels really good after you've been hammering for close to two hours. But I fancy myself kind of a climber guy so I figured this could maybe be to my advantage. Or reveal my pathetically inflated idea of my skills. Turns out, it went OK. I finished second among guys in my group, 10th overall. (The race was won by a 21-year-old. Just thought I'd throw that in.) Really cool was that after the first two events I'd moved up to 9th overall. Top 10, baby!
Then came the next morning's criterium. Before the race, almost nothing appealed to me about a criterium. Way too dangerous--riders bunched together riding way too fast, in and out of tight corners--the chance of crashing onto pavement is way too high, the constant sprinting to catch back up seems pointlessly painful. Ugh. Did I mention too that it was drizzling, thus making the city streets super slick?
My race was 25 minutes plus a lap; after about 10 or 12 minutes, I was ready for it to be over. I couldn't hang on to anyone's wheel. Partly because I was scared, partly because I was tired as hell from the previous day's two races, but also criteriums don't seem to play to whatever strengths I might have as a cyclist. I rode the last 10 minutes by myself (great workout) and am pretty sure that anyone who was behind me got pulled from the course for being too far behind; I was the last guy to finish. Woo hoo! (It reminded of the one year I was the last runner to finish Ski to Sea.)
I haven't seen the results but I venture to say that after my criterium, I was no longer in 9th place. (PS: Results came in--I only dropped two spots! I finished 11th overall.)
But the Tour of Walla Walla was blast. A great event and now, I'm officially a bike racer. I can shave my legs with knowing pride.